Helen McCrory On ... Middle Classes & Cherie BlairDate: 17 June 2010
McCrory has a long association with the Donmar, where previous credits include Old Times, Twelfth Night, Uncle Vanya (for which she won an Evening Standard Award), In a Little World of Our Own and How I Learned to Drive.
On screen, she recently reprised her role as Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and is soon to revisit her best-known role, Cherie Blair, in The Special Relationship, Peter Morgan's follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Queen.
Helen McCrory: Unlike a lot of Simon Gray’s plays which were redrafted up to as many as 45 times, he dictated The Late Middle Classes to his secretary in about six weeks and never changed a word. Written in 2000, it was his penultimate play and has the confidence of a playwright in the latter part of his career. It doesn’t feel too polemic; he’s not into showing people what 1950s England is like. It’s not some sort of theatre museum piece.
That said, it is semi-autobiographical, exploring what it was like to grow up as an artist at that time in the ramshackle family he came from. I play the mother Cynthia, who, having driven ambulances during the war, suddenly finds herself unfulfilled in the role of wife and mother.
I was completely ignorant of Simon's work before taking this on. I mean I knew exactly who he was, but he seemed ignored. Certainly amongst my peers, he seemed out of fashion. When I was sent the play, for the first couple of pages it seemed to be what I thought it would be but as I kept reading I thought 'this is English Chekhov, this is fantastic!' Instead of having to go to Russia or France to look at human nature in this detail and in this kind of quiet precision, you can go to Gray.
I now think it’s very important his work is done again and we claim his work as a foremost British playwright of the 21st century. I met him briefly once at the Almeida after a play I’d done. He came up and he was very kind and after he left I asked somebody who it was, and they said “Simon Gray”. I thought 'how interesting, in the whole conversation he didn’t talk about himself once.' He didn’t say he was anything to do with the theatre or that he was a playwright - he didn’t even introduce his name. And I think that runs through his plays, there is quality of humility that is very attractive; he has a kindness towards people. The audience have really been laughing - there's a sort of innocence and good humour about him that comes out in his plays. So this is my first Simon Gray play but I don’t think it’ll be my last.
Route into acting
I was at boarding school, and my drama teacher recommended Drama Centre and I auditioned and they looked at me and said “you must be joking” – I was murdering Juliet’s “Gallop apace” speech, kicking it to death, it lay limp at my feet. They looked at me and said “tell me what it was like when you first fell in love” and I said “I don’t think I have really”, and they said “well don’t waste our time - why did you choose that speech?!” I just looked at them and thought 'oh, do I have to think about this?' And I went to the other drama schools and they were very nice and offered me places, but I really wanted to go to Drama Centre because they were so direct and I really liked that.
So the next year I auditioned and I was put on the waiting list and I auditioned for a few other drama schools who again offered me places. But I refused them saying I was waiting to see if I got into Drama Centre and told Drama Centre that I had done this and than a few days later I got a letter back saying 'see you in September'. And I spent three very important years there.
I got my first big break under Richard Eyre at the National, but was also doing my first jobs for television with the likes of Michael Gambon, Billie Whitelaw and Bill Owen. It’s great to sit there and watch these people and find out what they’re doing. Why are they still working at 75? I want to carry on as long as they have if I can - hobbling on to the stage of the Haymarket on my zimmer frame.
Special relationship with Cherie Blair
The Special Relationship’s been filmed and already released in the States on HBO, but it will have a release in this country and Europe soon. It’s about the relationship between Clinton and Blair as well as Hilary and Cherie. It’s sort of a follow up to The Queen, as part of the trilogy that Peter Morgan wanted to write; Michael Sheen and I play the Blairs again.
It’s a completely different subject matter - this is far more about international politics between America and Britain, as well as the private politics such as the Monica Lewinsky affair and what it’s like to have a relationship with the President or the Prime Minister.
I joked with Peter that now Cherie has written an autobiography everybody will know what she’s actually like. When I was filming The Queen she was still convent-silent - ten Downing Street had her in manacles and she wasn’t going anywhere. So I studied her from afar and made her up but now she’s been on TV and radio and I'm terrified everyone will say “Helen’s nothing like Cherie Blair!”
Her role in The Special Relationship is much bigger than in The Queen, and consequently the humorous aspects of Cherie Blair, which Peter had previously enjoyed playing with, have gone a little and she’s become more serious. I was especially aware to be respectful to her; when you're suddenly talking about what a wife says to a husband about Kosovo, it becomes serious stuff. I’ve turned down jobs the past because they were disrespectful to the people they were portraying and you’ve got to be responsible for the people you’re talking about.